Why am I Running for Barbourville City School Board?

The following is a reprint of my original campaign announcement. For those who would like to understand where I’m coming from, and the number of people who helped me get here, this tribute is for them:

Ladies and Gentlemen!! Boys and girls, and children of ages!!

I would like to announce that earlier today, I picked up the paperwork to run for the Board of Education in Barbourville, Kentucky. As soon as the county clerk’s office opens in a few hours, this paperwork will be submitted.

Speaking as someone who ran away, spent college working, broke, and occasionally homeless, I can’t tell you what this means to me. Words can’t describe this.

But as a tribute to all the teachers who helped me get here, I’d like to try (at 1 in the morning….)

I came from a home that was abusive to the point that I tried to stay at school as long as possible. I got up at 545 am every day, crept out of the house before my mom woke up, and got to school as early as I could. I brushed my teeth there, slowly watched the building come alive, and stayed as late as I could – usually until 430 in the afternoon.

And then I’d go back home, and the screaming would start. And the death threats would follow soon after.

Now I did eventually escape that. I got a terrific education at that high school (Montgomery Blair High School – Go Blazers!), got a very lucky scholarship thanks to that education, and managed to go to college because of it (rather than the Navy, which was my backup plan). An I’ll be honest – it’s extremely annoying going to college with a bunch of smarmy upper-middle class kids when you’re broke, on your own, and on food stamps. But that education I’d gotten – that experience of going through everything I’d gone through, formed a rock solid foundation that kept me grounded. And somehow, knowledge always managed to illuminate some path forward.

“Educate” is word that comes from the Latin phrase “to lead out.” The best education is the education that truly people how to lead themselves “out” ~ out of the cave, into the world, or just plain “out!” Some of the older people reading this might not remember what’s it’s like to be a teen, and to feel at that age the the walls of the world are closing in on you – robbing you of a future for reasons you can’t understand. And that is sadly a very common feeling – especially here in this town, Barbourville KY, the county seat of the 16th poorest county in America.

So why did my education lead me out? And why has our education system failed so many others?

I’m not kidding about that second question. Just under a fifth (19%) of American high school students graduate high school (somehow) illiterate!! Thirteen years of public education, and no one ever taught them how to read!!! Add in the high school dropouts, and you have a US public education system that systematically fails at least a quarter of everyone who goes through it. That quarter is systematically cut off from any meaningful participation in the US economy, and are effectively doomed to a life of poverty.

Meanwhile, 61% of US teens find high school just plain boring!

My education was transformative because the teachers I had in high and middle school, almost without exception, were engaging interesting people who knew how to teach (show, don’t tell !!) and demonstrated every day that we meant the world to them. At a time when I was younger, and at serious risk of dropping out, there was a teacher who gave me the extra help and guidance I needed. A teacher gave me a ride home when I needed it. Another told me about a lucky internship program that changed my life…and collectively, they helped me figure out who I was, where I wanted to go, and were knowledgeable enough to show me how to get there. They gave me a home when I really didn’t have one…and not all kids do.

And if you want to know why I’m running for office, it’s because the type of transformative education I was given is very sadly the exception rather than the norm. And I believe that is wrong. So for the first time in a while, Barbourville KY is going to have a school board member who isn’t upper-middle class, but working class (and proud of it) ~ someone who almost came close to becoming a drop-out yet somehow made it!!

Our school system caters really well to rich kids born smart. It doesn’t do much for everyone else. As a sociologist, I’m going to be bringing in the latest sociology of education research to help you learn why – AND what we should do about it!

In the mean time, I’ll say this – Idiot administrators and policymakers have taught an entire generation of kids that taking a test is somehow more important than real learning. And in East Kentucky, we have the added problem that colossal stupidity in state government has lead to Barbourville schools getting 60% LESS funding compared to schools in wealthier suburbs (in violation of Kentucky state law and the state constitution too!). If you’re a student in East Kentucky, it’s VERY easy to feel like the wider world is passing you by…Because our schools are training too many of our students to be drop outs, and that’s about it.

We need an education system that is caring, compassionate, and above all willing to work individually with every kid – no matter how much help they need, and especially if they need a lot of it. Let’s start systematically overcoming all the problems poverty brings to our schools, and I’ve got some very concrete plans – like a free laptop program! – to make that happen. A more detailed plan will be coming out soon, but for starters: We’re gonna revise the curriculum to make sure it teaches kids what they need to know, go after the state government for violating its own laws when they defund our schools, protect student rights and give them a seat on the BoE (that Takoma Park, MD allows 16 year olds to vote in local elections I think is an example worth emulating), AND we’re gonna systematically give teachers the extra training and help they need, so they can learn how to teach more challenging populations, how to make education more experiential, and how to make it more interactive too!! The age of simple lecturing and rote memorizing is over, and I’m gonna make sure they get the help, recognition, and funding they need to teach at an exceptionally high level!! And we have to fix the over-testing of our kids too. ALSO ~ fight corruption within the school system with greater transparency and participatory budgeting.

I want this campaign to be a tribute to all those kids out there, including the 1.5 million teens who run away from home every year ~ many of whom end up homeless, starving, and possibly incarcerated. I want this campaign to be about creating the sort of education where by kid who might otherwise feel overwhelmed by the world learn how to reach their goals, and do in an environment that can protect

Above all, that’s going to mean seeing education as something cooperative rather than competitive.

So here’s to all the teachers who helped me get to where I am today, including but not limited to: Shellie Berman, David Swaney, Ralph Neil Bunday, Kevin Moose, Angelique Bosse, David Stein, Freda Mazis, Nanette Dyas, Phyllis Fleishacker, Eric Wallerstein, Mr Grossman, Dr. Rock, Dr. T., ….ok there are too many to list here….So I’ll just say the entire Blair Magnet Teaching Staff, (almost) all the teachers at Montgomery Blair High School, and the teachers I had at Pyle Middle School. Special shoutout to Jillian Deknatel and Michael Wildeman for helping me survive college, and to Michael Dukakis, Matt Cahill, & Michael Levangie for teaching me about politics while I was in college. Special shoutout to Monica Hickey Coquelin, Nate Charney, Kristin Wendell, Kyle, and the whole Colbert staff for sparking my interest in educational television. Mad props to former classmate Sebastian Johnson for making his own bold run for school board in Maryland earlier this year. AND special shout out to my friends and classmates like Avi Silber who have now become teachers in their own right.

And to all those people out there, who are looking at our country with a profound sense of sadness or unease, I know how hard it can be to face the world, with all of its problems, and still keep your faith and confidence intact.

To the other millennials out there, who are now starting to have kids of our own – I know how much harder doing this can be, especially when you have a young child who is counting on you to show them the way.

To all these people, I say: Love learning. Chase knowledge. And remember that all enlightenment is fundamentally an act of faith that enlightenment is possible.

To all of you, I say: You are not alone.